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Gymnastic dance.

Alicante is a coastal town in southern Spain that grew as a holiday resort for land-locked Madrid, with an easy rail route, generous beaches, and the promise of boats from its harbour to Ibiza, but it has never been rich, and now the motorway has spread the resort evenly along the coast. The building of the National Gymnastics Training Centre there reflects a local cult of this sport which has led to national and international successes. This was compounded by the paternalistic desire of central government to animate the provinces in contrast with the Franco regime's tendency to centre everything in Madrid.

The commission was given to Enric Miralles and former partner Carme Pinos in 1989 (AR July 1990), but building did not start until the beginning of 1993. The Training Centre was completed in its essentials in nine months to serve for the International Championships last October, but it has since been subject to further tidying-up and finishing-off.(1)

Miralles' new building joins a number of other sports facilities on the north side -- that away from the sea -- of a low hill which is the most prominent natural feature within the city. Roughly triangular in shape, the site is bounded to the north by an existing road which swings round into the hill, and to the south by the quickly rising contours. On both long sides of the triangle the ground next to the building rises towards the pointed east end, while the short downhill west side meets the artificial plane of an existing football pitch. The pitch's flatness and strict rectangularity forge a link with the city below and beyond, signalling culture as opposed to nature in the hill behind, and bequeathing to the building both its major axis and its most formal and symmetrical face. Public access from the city is via the road which adjoins its north flank. Overhanging upper parts of the structure set on columns combine with cantilevered roofs to provide an extensive porch to shelter the queuing crowds as they process up the long ramps: the whole north side is about entry.

Miralles was concerned that passers-by should be sheltered by it, wandering between columns and under projecting roofs, allowed to peep in through its numerous windows and catch a glimpse of life inside. It is an open building that belongs to the city and its people.

The brief asked for two large spaces: a main hall for public performances seating 4000, and a practice hall. Miralles chose to play up the difference between them, and also to place them in contrasting ways on the site, setting the main hall across the wide end parallel to the football pitch to the west, but running the practice hall at right-angles to it in a T-shaped arrangement. The two halls share offices, lavatories and changing facilities set between them, and the main entrances lie between the halls at the heart of the building.

In plan, the entrance area is a cleft between the major enclosed spaces, a funnel-shaped space into which the outside world pours. On the side facing the main hall it is bounded by the high back of the spectator seating, while on the other side a wall protectively enclosing the practice hall swings around with one of the ramps then across through the building to project on the other side: there it contains a narrow wing which houses classrooms and canteen. The entrance/foyer area is zoned sectionally between public and participants, the entrance for sports people being just above ground level with short ramps down to changing rooms, while that for spectators is at top seating level via a long external ramp. Despite this division, the central part is visually open, a transitional space at the heart of the complex from which one sees into both halls.

The main hall needed to be a unified space allowing all spectators an uninterrupted view, but it is only approximately rectangular, for the ends are treated in contrasting ways, and the long seating block to east is slightly skewed in sympathy with the contours and the invading wall which echoes them. Unlike the rigid rectangles needed to set up balanced relations between players for team sports, gymnastic space is defined by moveable mats of varied shape and size, often deployed simultaneously along with any necessary equipment. The overall dimensions are governed by the maximum length and height required for certain manoeuvres and the need for multiple groupings: the length to breadth ratio of almost 2:1 allows alternating use of two approximately square settings. So there was no need for a rigidly uniform arrangement of spectator seating, and it could be deployed to articulate the uneven division of social groups, with logical connections to the different circulation routes.(2) The lack of a clear focal point and of rectangularity and symmetry stress the autonomy of each seated group. This, and the right of each individual to a different point of view, is reminiscent of the aperspectivity pioneered by Hans Scharoun at the Philharmonie in Berlin.(3) Miralles consciously eschewed the more formal type of layout both for the sake of defining a new building-type for gymnastics -- their own special place -- and to deter later misappropriation for uses such as basket-ball.

The contrasting treatments of the hall's ends allow the inclusion of a sizeable entrance at the south-west corner, both for competitors to present themselves ceremonially and for introducing equipment. The projecting tongue of space serves this purpose and provides a generous practice area preparatory to appearance in the arena. If necessary, vehicles can be driven in through end doors to allow easy introduction of heavy equipment. A further entrance from the outside world at the north-west corner beneath a raised bank of seats was intended for servicing, but presents the intriguing possibility of a link between the focal space and the public realm, a front door through which processions and mobile performances might arrive from the city.

The performance hall is played off against the practice hall, which could be more irregular in keeping with its less formal role, merely providing volume sufficient for activity spaces temporarily defined by their separate mats. It could accept the tapered shape suggested by the site, and division by a central column to reduce the roof span. Formal spectator seating is not provided, but subordinate elements are added at the south-west corner almost like buildings-within-the-building. These stack up at varied angles with their windows, galleries and balconies looking into the practice hall on many levels. From here, and from the main stair system on the west side, gymnasts training can be watched by colleagues.

Even if the perimeters of the gymnastic spaces could be handled with some freedom, it was essential that their floors be absolutely flat, and desirable that both halls be at the same level to facilitate movement between them, especially of heavy equipment. Such horizontality is normally an assumed convention and easy enough on a flat site, but here the slope is considerable. The flat floor has to meet external ground at the outer doors of the main hall at the west end, so the rest of the building can only maintain this level by entering the hill, (the practice hall drops to 5m below ground at its east end). Throughout the building Miralles plays off this imposed flatness against the natural slope, allowing glimpses in through windows for comparison. As the hill rises, he drops short ramps down from the sports people's entrance to the main floor, while he lets the long one for spectators rise along the north side, winding in past lower entrance and ticket booths, then up and out again to meet a second branch coming out of the hill the other way. To attain the necessary height, the main ramp turns about three quarters of the way up to run against the slope, invading the building with an artificial bridge-like structure in opposition to the ground-like concrete ramps below. This passes across the north-west corner of the practice hall, and the queuing public can gain glimpses from its windows of the gymnasts, whetting their appetites for the spectacle about to unfold.

Within the building, the cascade of stairs and landings between the halls plays its complexity against the flatness of the floor below, which is again the stable reference point. The entry ramp continues internally at the north-west corner, leading back down past refreshment areas and external balconies towards the main bank of seating on the west side. This sloping path becomes artificial ground, echoing the slope of the hill beneath. Horizontal reference is given both by the performance floor and by the ranges of seats.

If the flat floor is one of the main unifying elements in this complex and fragmented building, the roof is the other. It covers the whole length in one continuous sweep at very low pitch, with slight falls to either side and back into the hill. There are three longitudinal trusses, the largest elements of the building, which run in dead straight lines from east to west, diverging towards the west end and major space. Internally the central truss makes a spine for the building which is the main orientation device, visible from almost everywhere. The central line of columns is also prominent, internally in the tripods at the centre and ends of the practice hall, and externally in the concrete legs at the centre of the west side.

The initial design of 1989 proposed that the three long trusses be of constant depth, an impressively simple formal concept, but in further development with engineers it proved advantageous to vary the depth of the trusses by projecting them upwards to varying heights in accordance with the span beneath. It is this that produced the bridge-like truss forms so essential to the image of the final building, the largest being the central one over the main performance hall, which has to span across both main banks of seating as well as the performance space. The side ones with smaller spans do not run so high, and that of the north side was changed to a constant height for most of its length to save time.(4)

The secondary structure crossing the main trusses consists of down-standing bowshaped trusses. These provide a flat upper surface for the roof decking and a curved inner one, made apparently solid by hanging canvas sheets on the underside. This accentuates the central spine and its accompanying rooflights, reduces the visual clutter of the roof, and provides some necessary acoustic absorption. The canvas sheets in alternating colours are reminiscent of flags and banners, but also of circus and fairground tents, adding a sense of festivity which is all the more welcome in contrast with the greyness elsewhere. Some of the canvases carry patterns of foot and hand-prints by performing gymnasts, a visual record of their movements.

With Miralles' buildings there is no clear and singular building-body, no box, no object. The flat floor is made, and retaining walls set around the east end. Banks of seating are added, then structural columns and enclosing walls, and sweeping ramps define the progression of the public route. The offices, changing rooms, classrooms, and canteen are inserted like untidily stacked containers. The roof is then thrown over the top and its extensions added, while protective claddings are applied to the external walls. Miralles intends both that the elements retain their individual identities and that their interrelation contributes to the landscape -- the existing natural one and the new architectural topography.

Most of the construction and servicing is on display. It is mainly made of in-situ or precast concrete and steel, with relatively few secondary finishes. Precast elements stress the autonomy of some elements, while in-situ -- surprisingly rough in finish to the English eye -- allows the plasticity of ramps and awkward junctions. Steel is bolted together out of standard sections and mostly galvanised, though it is painted white on the north front.

The switch from concrete to steel has more to do with the logic of assembly than with any ideological wish to differentiate between the heavy, ground-like material and the relatively lighter, stronger one. The main supporting columns for the primary roof trusses are concrete around the edges, steel along the middle. Visually unobstructive, their tripod form is reassuring in its stability. The provision of separate airtight rooms is avoided as far as possible in the interest of spatial continuity, privacy being gained in changing areas by turning a corner or being behind a glass-block screen. Doors are swinging or sliding planes most easily left open, elements in their own right, not temporarily vacant areas of wall.

There are relatively few secondary finishes, the main ones being a green linoleum-like coating for wet floor areas and numerous wall infill panels of perforated terracotta. Ventilation ducts springing from the basement float naked across the ceiling to open their hard nostrils up near the roof, huge silver tubes in galvanised steel.

The Training Centre expresses more of Barcelona than of Alicante, for Miralles is a Catalan architect by birth and training, and has worked with other Catalan architects.(5) It is tempting to notice parallels with Gaudi's Gothic wildness, with the Latin vigour and sinuous line of Picasso and Miro. Clearer, perhaps, are the climatic considerations, for Miralles has made an architecture always on the border between inside and out, where shelter is needed more from the sun than from the rain.(6)

Miralles seems not yet to have done a rectangular building, and with work so full of skewed angles, curves, and intersecting elements, it is easy to see why he sometimes gets bracketed with the Deconstructivists. While sympathetic to literary Deconstruction, he is sceptical about its application to architecture. A clearer precedent for his work is the organic line of Modernism represented by the work of Scharoun, Haring and Aalto.

Contextual concern for the control of surrounding spaces, and also the transitions between inside and out, mean that Miralles' building is unthinkable elsewhere. He produces what Scharoun called Stadtlandschaft (city-landscape). The aims behind Miralles' Training Centre suggest a positive continuation of the organic tradition, through buildings dedicated to place and occasion that acknowledge history without being trapped by it, and make substantial use of late twentieth-century technology while keeping it in a subservient role.

Footnotes

(1)The commission followed from earlier work in the region, particularly the boarding school for Morella designed in 1986. The funding of the training centre was entirely public, divided between the municipality, the federation of sports and local government.

(2)The long symmetrical western range and the back of the eastern one are given to the general public, the lower part of the eastern range to Sports Federation members and other participants, and the short blocks of seating at north and south ends to relatives and press respectively. These are not rigid divisions: it is rather a means of showing that the audience is not a single unified mass. Miralles suggests this seating arrangement, but claims it is not a fixed pattern. 'My starting point was the theatrical aspect, the way balconies could break the audience into smaller groups.' Letter to the author, April 27 1994.

(3)The Berlin concert hall has terraces of seats surrounding the orchestra and facing in a variety of directions, not all perpendicular to it. The terracing breaks up the mass of the audience, reducing the distinction between producers and consumers, while the switches of angle encourage the audience to look at each other as well as at the performance.

(4)The whole building was built in nine months and for a relatively tight budget amounting to only about half that for the Olympic buildings of 1992. Simplification of the third truss was an agreed concession to the builder to help meet the schedule.

(5)Notably Albert Viaplana and Helio Pinon.

(6)In many of his buildings, cover is more important than a heated envelope: for example, the Olympics archery buildings in Val d'Hebron, the sun-screens of the Plaza Mayor in Parets del Valles, and the cemetery in Igualada consist largely of outdoor spaces, conceived in a city where public life takes place in street and plaza for most of the year.
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Title Annotation:National Training Center for Gymnastics in Alicante, Spain
Author:Jones, Peter Blundell
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Words:2706
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